Following a nearly four-hour UMSU board of directors meeting that president Brendan Scott described as “contentious,” the union is to begin work on drafting a statement of solidarity with Palestinian students.
The heavily amended motion 0517 was approved following hours of debate in which the board heard from numerous students with ties to both sides of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the occupied Palestinian territories.
UMSU will become one of several student unions across the country that have issued such statements including the York Federation of Students, University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson and Simon Fraser Student Society.
The decision comes as the result of months-long efforts by an informal coalition of 40 students at the University of Manitoba. The group’s goals are to get UMSU to issue a statement of solidarity with Palestinian students, create a new chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine on campus and initiate a human rights complaint against the Asper school of business for an email which they view as threatening to international students.
“We are very humbled [by the board of directors passing motion 0517] because we know the precedent that our actions will serve,” said Black, Indigenous, Students of Colour Collective co-founder and member of the coalition Tabitha Clavecillas.
“This is a historical moment, it’s a watershed moment for student advocacy […] it will empower future iterations of us from different walks of life […] it will […] tell them that this is okay, talking about these issues [is] okay […] the board of directors are for the students and not for the institutions that keep us silenced.”
Zahra Rizvi, a third-year computer science major involved with the group, said on campus Palestinians have felt “there is nobody to speak for [them],” and that there is a lack of resources and support.
“We’ve come such a long way […] the word ‘Palestine’ is going to be uncensored,” said Rizvi.
However, discussion of the motion during the meeting — and even whether to consider the motion — was tense and at times heated.
After initially being introduced to the UMSU board of directors in July, the motion was referred to the executive. The initial motions 0517 and 0518 were tabled by the executive with the aim of creating a new one in collaboration with the coalition.
The UMSU executive held two meetings with the coalition to discuss the motion but were unable to reach an agreement.
The group had put forward a draft statement to be worked on with the executive at those meetings, but there was no agreement reached. The executive insisted on removing the word “Palestine” from the statement in an attempt to make it inclusive of “all students affected by events in the Middle East,” according to UMSU vice-president student life Savannah Szocs.
At the board of directors meeting on Sept. 7, the executive put forward motion 0520, intended to be a more inclusive alternative to that of the coalition.
A motion to reconsider the original motions was put forward. The motion passed after approximately 20 minutes of debate.
“The statement [the executive] had written was completely devoid of all mention of Palestine under the pretense of inclusion and was written in a very patronizing tone,” said Rizvi while providing motivation for reconsidering the coalition’s motions.
“Choosing to delete any and all mention of Palestine under the pretense of inclusion is not inclusive […] This is disrespectful to the work that the coalition of students has done so far and an injustice to not just Palestinian and impacted students but also to every Black, Indigenous and student of colour.”
Scott said “it is not a student union’s place to be involved in foreign politics,” both during the debate and in an interview Sept. 13.
He said motion 0520 “is one that supports all students who may be affected by the Middle East and not just Palestinian students.”
He continued that the new motion “encompasses the spirit” of the coalition’s including a statement and list of specific resources for students to access.
A presentation to the board by the coalition pointed out UMSU has recently taken positions on both international issues and has expressed solidarity with specific groups of students.
In February 2020, UMSU released a statement in solidarity with Indian students following the passage of a law in India that stripped Indian Muslims of their citizenships.
Later that year in June, UMSU released a joint statement with other student unions in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
The presentation also included many testimonials from Palestinian and Muslim students as well as screenshots of death threats received by a Palestinian student in the faculty of science who wished to remain anonymous.
Fears of exclusion
During debate, the UMSU executive committee was accused of taking an “all lives matter” approach — the argument it is wrong to show support for a specific group because other groups also struggle, often used in response to the BLM movement — to the question of solidarity with Palestinian students.
Szocs “really strongly” disagreed with the comparison.
“Wanting to support all people is not the same as silencing BLM protesters and saying all lives matter,” she said. She argued it makes more sense to release one joint statement rather than one for students from every country.
Motion 0520 is “just a blanket statement so that we can say that we support all students in the Middle East right now,” she said.
University of Manitoba Black Students Union president Reem Elmahi agreed with the “all lives matter” comparison.
“I often don’t like comparing all social movements with Black Lives Matter, but there definitely are parallels to what’s happening here,” Elmahi said.
“We made it very clear with the whole movement that anti-Blackness was an issue, and we didn’t want to water it down to just racism because things were directly impacting Black people and to lump together all the racist things that happen to all people of colour can get kind of washed and just become very generic statements. I just want to make it clear […] we shouldn’t be lumping all Middle Eastern issues together.”
A number of Jewish and Israeli students also spoke during the debate, saying the motion in solidarity with Palestinian students made them feel “attacked” and as though their experiences are being delegitimized.
One student argued the motion delegitimizes the state of Israel. He urged the adoption of a motion that equally supports both sides.
“We should be scared about the kind of precedent we set when we exclusively show support for one group over another when both are experiencing suffering from the same conflict,” they said.
Others argued only the Palestinian side of the humanitarian crisis in the occupied Palestinian territories was being represented.
There is no timeline for when the statement will be released, although in an interview Sept. 13, Scott said work will begin and stakeholders will be consulted.